Big 12 defenses have long been reviled for giving up massive amounts of yards and points, but there are signs that the reputation of the conference might be changing. In somewhat of a departure from previous years, there was more of a focus at Big 12 Media Days on defense last week. Comments from coaches around the conference about individual defenders and whole units were revealing.
Second year head coach David Aranda, renowned for his understanding of defenses, had this to say when asked what he thought about defense in the Big 12:
“I see this as being a defensive conference…creating negative plays is really where it’s at on defense. And I think there’s a fair amount of people now that are really interested in getting in the backfield.”Dave Aranda
Aranda listed several examples of teams dedicated to playing quality defense in the Big 12. One of the squads he named was Iowa State, which implemented the innovative 3-3-5 defense under coordinator Jon Heacock. Key to that improvement has definitely been the development of players like three time All-Big 12 defensive back Greg Eisworth. Head coach Matt Campbell raved about Eisworth, calling him a “transformational leader, ” and noting that the football program at Iowa State wouldn’t have made the strides it has without Eisworth’s leadership.
West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said that he expects the leadership on his team to come from the defense in 2021, like it did the year previous. Remarking that he thought West Virginia’s 2020 defense was one of the best in the league, Brown pointed out that the Mountaineers statistically had the highest ranked pass defense.
Entering his third year as a coach in the Big 12, Texas Tech head coach Matt Wells has been around long enough to learn a thing or two about the conference. When asked what he knows now that he didn’t upon coming into the conference, Wells said:
“…one thing that doesn’t get talked about quite a bit, and it needs to, is the defenses in this league. There’s really good defensive coordinators and defensive-minded head coaches in Coach (Dave) Aranda and Coach (Gary) Patterson and coordinators in this league that are very good. ”Matt wells
Even the head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners, Lincoln Riley, spent a majority of his opening press conference talking about defensive improvements under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Since Grinch’s hiring in 2018, Riley pointed out, the Sooners have continued to improve every year. The defensive players even look different walking into team meetings than they did before, he noted.
Indeed, both of the Big 12’s Oklahoma schools have progressed over the course of the past few seasons. For Oklahoma State and Mike Gundy, it seemed like the offensive side of the ball was carried at times by the defense. When asked about the state of his defense going into 2021, Gundy had this to say:
“I feel more comfortable with our defense going on the field than I have maybe in my first 12 or 14 years as a head coach. We played good third-down defense…I think we’ve simplified. We’ve gone with simplicity and repetition compared to trying to out-coach other people…And I’m hoping, from what I’ve seen in the spring, that we’ll have the fastest defense that we’ve had since I’ve been a head coach, which again is important.”MIKE GUNDY
Gundy’s squad won’t be the only Big 12 unit competing to be one of the top defenses in the country. With so many starters returning on the defensive side of the ball in the Big 12, expect there to be a high level of defensive football played in the fall. With the start of college football right around the corner, it’ll exciting to see defenses in the Big 12 showcase the changing makeup of the conference.